California Democrats face a crucial task as they gather in San Diego this weekend for their annual convention: deciding the party’s endorsements in a handful of crowded congressional races. That includes the increasingly fractious 4th Congressional District contest, where some local leaders are hoping the decision to endorse a candidate will help stem some of the infighting – and turn the race’s focus to ousting veteran House Republican Tom McClintock.
The traditionally Republican district, which includes El Dorado County, parts of Placer County and eight others that stretch into the Sierra Nevada mountains, has seen a surge of energy and excitement on the Democratic side since President Trump’s election. Despite the long political odds, activists believe whichever Democrat gets out of the top-two primary could give McClintock a run for his money.
Two of the three Democrats running for McClintock’s seat – Regina Bateson and Roza Calderon – are urging the party to let the voters sort out who that will be in June, and not weigh in with an endorsement now. But “Democrats, in general, I think they would like to see an endorsed candidate,” said Eric Sunderland, the state party’s regional director based in Sacramento. It could “help clean the field up a little bit.”
In recent weeks, the contest has become increasingly messy for Democrats.
As the convention has approached, Bateson supporters have stepped up their attacks on Jessica Morse, the frontrunner, whom they accuse of exaggerating her professional accomplishments and other qualifications. An investigation by The Bee found that Morse, in fact, built an accomplished career at the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. military, but has left out some important context about her work and at times overstated her influence on American foreign policy.
Morse supporters, in turn, are accusing Bateson of engaging in dirty campaign tactics. Boosters of both campaigns have pointed out that the other only recently returned to the district after pursuing careers on the East Coast. Bateson grew up in Roseville and recently moved back from Boston, taking an unpaid leave from her job as a political science professor at MIT. Morse was raised in Carmichael, just outside the district line. She left Washington, D.C. in 2015 and moved to Pollock Pines, near where her family owns property going back generations. (For his part, McClintock has never resided in the district. He lives in Elk Grove).
Calderon is the one Democratic candidate who has spent her adult life in the district, but has been hampered by accusations, documented in the Sacramento News and Review, that she stole money from a local group she helped found, the Placer Women Democrats. While Morse and Bateson both outraised the incumbent in the final quarter of 2017, Calderon has struggled to raise funds or win endorsements.
Placer Women Democrats did not respond to a request to comment on the allegations. Calderon said she paid the money back even though she doesn’t believe she owed it. She and her supporters have accused local Democratic groups of racism for attempting to push her from the race. “The only other reasoning I can see that the people who want me to drop out have is that they prefer someone who is Caucasian with an Ivy League degree,” she told The Bee.
Sunderland confirmed the party did intervene at one point to urge Calderon be included in local party forums, but denied the actions were rooted in racism. “There were some overzealous volunteers that maybe were trying to narrow the field and I counseled against it and hopefully we’ve gotten that straightened out,” he said. Other local Democrats say Calderon’s lack of support stems from the embezzlement allegations, not the fact that she is Latina.
Despite the controversy, Calderon insists she is staying in the race. She told The Bee she continues to raise money and blamed her failure to file a year-end fundraising report on a change of fundraising compliance firm. The Federal Election Commission sent a letter to her campaign on Feb. 16 warning of possible enforcement action.
The 4th district isn’t the only California congressional race where Democrats are battling one another. Republican Rep. Jeff Denham’s Modesto-area congressional district seat has attracted at least seven credible Democratic challengers – none of whom reached the threshold to even consider an endorsement in San Diego. The state party endorsement for four other competitive Orange County races are also up for grabs at this weekend’s convention.
It’s the blessing and the curse of the liberal backlash to President Trump: Swarms of eager first-time candidates and millions of dollars in campaign donations are bolstering Democrats’ opportunities to unseat Republicans and win back control of Congress. But the competition is also fueling internal divisions and risks dooming Democrats in November. Local leaders in retiring Republican Rep. Darrell Issa’s San Diego- area district have begun sounding the alarms that the number of Democratic candidates in the race could keep any of them from advancing to the general election, thanks to the top-two primary system.
In the 4th district, local activists are growing worried as the sparring has intensified on social media and in public forums, dividing neighbors and local party committees.
Attorney Rochelle Wilcox, a Democratic candidate who dropped out of the race in the fall, is now working to help unify the party. “I think it is appropriate to talk about (candidates’ backgrounds) but not with the negativity and venom that is being directed by some people,” she said. Her message to activists: “Even if everything being said about the candidates are true, any one of them is better than Tom McClintock.”
The fragmentation creates a particular challenge in the race to unseat McClintock, where Republicans have a double-digit voter registration advantage.
Another obstacle: the 4th district’s geographic sprawl. Sunderland described the district as “a pollywog, with (the Sacramento suburb of) Roseville the head and a little tail going all the way to Yosemite.” The distance between population centers and the mountainous terrain “sort of Balkanizes the district,” added Les Francis, an activist with the liberal group Sierra Forward.
Francis estimated that since Trump’s election, there are now well over 60 local Democratic party and independent liberal groups operating in the region. “Trying to knit them together in even a loose coalition is going to take some work,” he conceded. But that is the purpose of Sierra Forward, which Francis and several other activists formed in the wake of the 2016 election. “We have a singular focus, which is to defeat McClintock,” he said.
Some local leaders believe the best hope for doing that is for Democrats to pick one candidate this weekend to rally around – and for the other two candidates to drop out. Going into the convention, Morse has the inside edge for the party’s endorsement, having garnered 54 percent of the delegates’ vote at the pre-endorsement convention. Bateson won 42 percent. To win the state party’s endorsement, one candidate needs to garner 60 percent of delegates’ votes on Saturday.
On Thursday, Bateson and Calderon put out a joint statement urging party delegates not to endorse a candidate in the race, but instead to “let the people decide in June,” when California holds its primary. Anything else, they suggested, “will allow money and party elites to dictate who we will ultimately see on the June ballot.”
But Wilcox, now a member of Sierra Forward, says settling on a candidate sooner rather than later will help Democrats’ cause down the road. “If they (all) stay in the race, we’ll continue to have the talking and the negativity that is coming out right now.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the final breakdown of the pre-endorsement caucus vote.